Posts Tagged ‘NGO Interview’

IntraHealth International – NNGO Interview series

November 11, 2009

The 3rd interview in the NGO series, was with Mark Hershberger (MH), Jeff Strope (JS) from IntraHealth International. I’m really learning a lot from these and someone asked me the point in them. Well, a lot of NGOs are using Open Source where they can and a lot are using it 85% of the time.  I’m trying to ascertain why not 100%, find the pitfalls of where oss lets them down and see if we the community can help them.

How I’ve gone about this is asking NGOs to take part and overall the reception to this has been great as they want to tell everyone about how great it is, and also where they are let down by.  In the end I’m going to use these interviews to go to other NGOs who don’t use oss and show them that they use it just as easily as their current choice without much effort and there is a community of friendly people to help them when they need it.

Students and staff gathered around one of the few working computers to upload field internship reports at L'Ecole d'Infirmiers de Gao. Photo by Danny de Vries in August 2007.
Students and staff gathered around one of the few working computers to upload field internship reports at L’Ecole d’Infirmiers de Gao. Photo by Danny de Vries in August 2007.

Czajkowski Can you tell us more about your organisation and how you use Ubuntu?

JS : IntraHealth International is a (mostly) US-government funded non-profit tasked with (mostly) promoting better health care systems in the developing world. Systems is used in a broader sense, not a technical one. We work with governments and regional leadership to ensure an adequate number of health care talent exists and that these individuals are well trained and equipped.

MH : We’re in the process of wrapping up the Capacity 2 funding cycle (yesterday was the End Of Project thing at the World Bank) and beginning on the country-specific AAs (Associate Awards — follow-ons for Capacity). There should be additional funding soon… but all that is kinda sketchy atm. But most of our work right now is around health care capacity in developing nations. Training and tracking providers. Our Mission statement is here . But one thing we do is the iHRIS Suite. Which I can go into more detail on. Jeff  will be able to tell you how we use Ubuntu internally. But when we deploy our open-source iHRIS Suite, we tend to use and develop on ubuntu. iHRIS is an open source human resources for health application that Mark and his colleagues developed. It is now in use in many regions in the world.

Big problem in developing countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, etc, where we’ve been working, is that health care providers (doctors, nurses) are out there, but no one really knows where they are or all the information is in paper files literally kept in containers. Not the easiest thing to look through when you have an Hep G outbreak. What iHRIS does is gives the Ministry of Health or Nursing Council a way to keep track of all that information by putting it in a digital format. (Actually, while Internet is spotty, there is electricity and thus, computers, at the health care centers. )

“no one wanted to touch them they were so dirty” so, of course, first you have the problem that it is paper and hard to get to, then it is dirty and no one wants to touch it. Just digitalizing the records would be a boon, but Uganda is now rolling out iHRIS to each of its districts and we’ll hopefully be working with them to integrate it with OpenMRS, running on Ubuntu where possible.

Rita next to files in Uganda
Rita next to files in Uganda

Czajkowski can you perhaps tell me some more about the challenges you come up against?

MH : Challenge: finding people in-country to support the software. We have one really really great guy in Uganda (and others in Kenya, etc) who is really interested in OSS, but he says most of his peers are MS focused. and we’re trying to work with Unis in-country to develop educational programs (see Intrahealth Open here was a really good story in the Linux Journal maybe 10 years back that talked about training people in-country to use accounting software he realized that the software would be no good if no one could maintain it or the computers… so he backed up and taught them dbl entry book-keeping.

But I think the biggest problem is finding people on the ground who are willing/able to even learn to maintain the software…. (as far as software use goes) and getting the right people trained on using these methods (not all of which means the software). We have workshops, but the first few of those have been attended mostly by managers and not the people who would actually be doing the work. Hopefully that changes.

JS: Trying to apply Western technologies into the developing world is probably the largest challenge, generally speaking. That and getting Western people to think in terms of the technologies that do exist in the developing world. We recently had meetings with a number of sister NGOs that have similar missions and financial tracking was the #1 issue for all of them.

Czajkowsk So what made you start this?

MH: Then USAID first started saying “we want to build capacity” and they were looking around for some HRIS software intrah started talking to consultancies to get a price for it the consultancy said something like $500k for the initial development + $100k/country/year after that  which, when you’re talking to developing countries… is just ridiculous.So they had a developer at the time, Luke Duncan, and he and Dykki started working on the first version of the software think that was for Rwanda and Kenya saw it and re-implemented in Java .

Czajkowski what made you chose Ubuntu/OSS ?

I think it was just because back in 2005 or so that was what Luke was using. That Canonical was behind it and pushing its LTS helped. so, time goes by… by the time they’re working on version 3, I come along and Carl L. comes along. Carl really pushed the software forward made a really complete framework. (I was mostly working on other OSS  projects) the MoH in Uganda uses Suse on their servers (maybe even the iHRIS ones) because they bought it pre-installed, but mostly we’re talking about Ubuntu. (When I went to Rwanda, I took a USB HD with a mirror of the Ubuntu repo on it so that made it easier)

Czajkowski Do you use any proprietary software?

JS: We’re still a primarily Windows shop. We have 500-ish Windows workstations + an AD/Exchange environment.

MH: There is a small component inside iHRIS that isn’t strictly open source, but that is replacable — and I hope to replace it 😉

Czajkowski you say 500 are Microsoft Workstations, that’s a lot, how many are running Ubuntu so ?

JS: A dozen or so. Servers are probably 50/50 ms/linux.

MH: While we tried to get internal HR to use iHRIS, we’ve run into an HR problem. Hard to get them to want to eat their own dog food enough to pay for additional devs….

Czajkowski do you see that as an obstacle, your own people not using OSS , how do you expect others to?

JS: We do use OSS and I don’t think we “expect” others to use it either. We expect (or hope) people to use the most appropriate tool for the job.

MH: The concept of OSS is good, people get it, but its hard when they already have MS installed and are used to it. Hard when most people aren’t technical and don’t get all the “political” arguments for OSS. Remember 500 PCs … most of which are used by people with medical, not technical, backgrounds  unless I’m wrong about the backgrounds, jstrope?)

JS: Not wrong at all. Few of the people here are technical.

MH: Other projects, like OpenMRS, have similar problems. OpenMRS depends on MS’s proprietary form software. Users at one site in Uganda said “we could run everything on Ubuntu and save lots on MS licenses if it weren’t for that requirement in OpenMRS”

Czajkowski what can Ubuntu do to help you?

JS: Laura — you hit the nail on the head there about training. Why would IntraHealth want to save $50,000 on licensing when it would cost us $1,000,000 in retraining to do so? That’s really why Ubuntu should focus less on desktop and more on web-based services. That’s how Microsoft is going to lose its grip. Because my MS users here might not be comfortable in a Gnome desktop, but they are (for the most part) very comfortable in a browser. It would be very, very nice to see better AD integration. AD stinks, but it’s not going anywhere. Focus on smoothing out the server and that will really help desktop adoption

MH: I would like to know what is needed to get some things into Ubuntu proper. what do I need to do to contribute things I’ve packaged? Debian Med is a micro-distro, for example, focused on Medical stuff that I’ve thought about and may still contribute my iHRIS packages to. Is there a possibility of something similar for Ubuntu? (would they be interested in the packages)  JS is working on some Asterisk stuff… getting that easier to deploy on the server side would be good.

I see Canonical/Ubuntu very focused on the desktop and doing great things there, but the server side could use the same attention. Many things (e.g. AD integration, Apache single-sign-on) could be really, really simplified. And the AD stuff could really, really easily be automated and packaged w/o relying on any proprietary stuff. Make it simple to join a domain, etc. Make it possible, on the server side, to set up SMB and LDAP and Kerberos to work with or replace AD. I think this is possible now, but takes a lot of fiddling. make it fiddle-free.  Did I mention I’d like to see a lot more love for the server side? I mean, it helps if the people we train in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, etc don’t have to deal with so much… Debian has done a lot of good there, but Ubuntu could take it so much farther.

So I’d like to thank once again Mark and Jeff for taking part in the evening of interviews. I’m learning a lot during these meetings, and also being able to share with you and others in the community aspects in which I hope we can address, already I’ve passed on some of the server comments to people so lets hope we can help them in some way.


Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands – NGO Interview

November 11, 2009

Following on from the last blog post with interviewing NGOs, the next interview is with Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Jan Stedehhouder and I spoke with Paul Roeland regarding his work with Milieudefensie as an NGO who uses Open Source in an every day working environment.

Czajkowski so the mission behind your organisation?

Paul Roeland

Our mission is to improve the environment and create a sustainable future. We aim to do that by involving as many people as we can, as we believe people are our most important ally. Milieudefensie is part of an international network called Friends of the Earth. Within that network, we place great value on empowering people in the so-called ‘third world’ and bridging gaps in knowledge and power the issue of using Open source was actually first brought up in the international network. The sister organisations in for instance Latin America are quite aware of the importance of OS of course, it was also important for us that we could save a lot of money. Money that is brought in by our members, and that we rather spend on actions than on software licenses  it’s always difficult to give an exact number. We do know that for the last 6 years, we have every year decreased the IT budget. We’ve estimated that we have saved about 30-50.000 a year, but please don’t pin us on the exact number. Perhaps a more useful metric: we also manage to serve 150 users with a 3-people IT department, whereas before we needed 4 people to service 50 people.

Jan Stedehouder “  Looking forward to an update on the open source strategy of Milieudefensie. Two years ago Arjen Kamphuis explained something about  it and explained some issues with migrating to open source across the board”

We decided a couple of years ago (about five) to work as much as possible with Open Source for multiple reasons: security, costs, but also ideological it would be a balance between open source desktops and web based applications, some of which proprietary. in principle we wanted a completely open desktop, but it would have to remain workable and (certainly at that time) there were no open source options for some of our most crucial applications: finances, bookkeeping, donor/customer relations.

One of the bottle-necks was the financial administration and the time frame in which it needed to be implemented there are several problems with financial software: it’s not as ’sexy’ for geeks to develop :-) There are  dependant on a lot of external factors: banks, accountants and of course it has to work perfectly. We can survive a few days of non-working website, but we can’t afford to not be able to access our bank accounts for about 80-90 % of our staff, we have already transferred them onto Ubuntu desktops.

Jan Stedehouder “  If I remember correctly there were some ideas about approaching the government with various other non-profit organizations in order to tailor made open source ERP software for the Dutch situation, that’s a lot already. Perhaps, you can explain which staff members/functions migrated first and so on? “

Yes, that was the plan. But it proved to be difficult to get all the non-profits in line.  Some of them had just invested large (and I mean LARGE) amounts of money in a new proprietary system, and first need to earn that money back, so to speak. So it’s a huge lock in vendor. We started (after the IT department) with a few departments doing mostly communications and research. “Knowledge workers”, so to speak.

Some, back ground into the Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands,  the first people were our campaigners. They mainly rely on email, web and wordprocessing to get their job done, so that was relatively easy. A big help was also that we implemented a very good open source CMS for our website (Plone). That meant that they could update the website from their browser, eliminating Adobe/Macromedia software. The Plone site started 4 years ago, and a few months later we migrated the first 20 people.  here were some hiccups then, but these people were volunteers,and knew there would be some rough edges. At that time, about 110 people working on this.

Jan Stedehouder ” How would characterize the volunteer group? Why did they volunteer?”

They were mainly the younger people, who had some computer experience. And some of them had been exposed to open-source activists :-) at the time, there was an active group in Amsterdam called “ASCII”. They ran a volunteer-run internet cafe.

Jan Stedehouder “Can you tell a bit more about the experiences, good and bad, of this first group and how did it influence the migration of the second group?

We did have regular surveys to ask the first group about their experiences all in all, as we also expected, they had no problem at all using browsers and email. In fact, they loved that part, since it was much more stable than the previous Microsoft programs. There were issues using Openoffice. Word Processing was not the main problem. Of course, sometimes there were cases where interoperability was difficult but not much worse than between different versions of Word. The main problem is spreadsheets.

Some people have amazingly complex spreadsheets, and they do not work. Not all functions are compatible and Calc is definitely weaker in the area of PivotTables (or DataPilot, as Calc calls it). Some of the more complicated spreadsheets are now re-implemented as Intranet solutions. The data is in Postgres or MySQL  and we have started using Pentaho to do complex reports although it still doesn’t create as pretty graphs as Excel does. That is actually the only thing Microsoft Office is good at. Excel is the only good program in the whole suite. It makes it very easy for end-users to make pretty graphs well, actually, yes they are. Sometimes we have rather dry measurements on air pollution. But project those on a map, and suddenly it all makes sense.

We’ve resorted also to use Google Maps now. Not exactly open source, to say the least, but it works…. The reason for not using Open Street maps  is again, prettiness is an issue if you want to present it to the general public…

We did learn some stuff from the first group that were valuable:  make sure that fonts, templates, logo’s and the like are available as Openoffice templates  always make sure that there are different people in your pilot group we first made the mistake of assuming that people only do simple stuff in Office) never underestimate the amazing things that secretaries do,creating mail merge letters and such stuff that we geeks never do.

Jan Stedehouder “How long before the pilot group was expanded?”

About six to nine months. We took some time out to actually watch over people’s shoulders to see what they do in Office, and how they do it (or failed to do it) in Openoffice. Some of the issues were easy to solve once we did that for instance, train people to use style-sheets instead of manually formatting stuff  but also we made detailed bug reports to the Openoffice site, saying how their mail merge wizard used impossibly geeky language. The OS is actually secondary, once you put the menu bar on the bottom instead of the top :-)

We did want to stress the fact that we were using something different we used the “Max Havelaar” analogy.  Saying that Milieudefensie, being what we are, wouldn’t tolerate anything but Fairtrade coffee in our cantina so why should we put up with anything else on our desktops? People seemed to get that point quite easily.

Czajkowski Can I ask what made you chose Ubuntu as your choice for this project?

Well, we started out before using Debian on our servers so it was a logical step from that we did tests to determine if we would use Gnome or KDE and KDE lost, big time, I’m afraid to say. It was just way too configurable. Too many options  the servers are still using Debian. We probably also won’t change that anytime soon the reason is that it’s much easier (still) to find documentation, how to’s etc on using Debian.

Czajkowski How do you find the documentation for ubuntu? language/use ?

For desktops, Ubuntu is way superior in terms of finding help the ubuntu documentation, forums, mailing lists are great, and friendly for servers, the requirements are a bit different. Stability is key.

Jan Stedehouder  I’d like to go back to the desktop. You started with a pilot of 20, and now you have 90 desktops. How did it scale? What new issues came up?

it scaled quite well. We are using a centralized setup. All users are in LDAP, and we use remote-mounted home-dirs so that people can login on any computer in the building. Some issues came up as new Ubuntu releases came out. All in all it took about 2 – 2.5 years. That was not so much a technical issue, but more a capacity problem we only switched a new department when we had time to assist them personally during the first few days and some departments took more time than others. It took us a while, for instance, to get Multimedia right we decided to be pragmatic, and also give out ‘tainted’ code like mp3, flash, Acrobat reader, mplayer, VLC not to forget Skype. Closed source, but it is used a lot to contact our sister organisations in Indonesia and other countries. I mean, you can ramble about Ogg Theora all you want, but if people can’t see our own videos on youtube, they will rebel.

Czajkowski What kind of issues did you run into in ubuntu ?

We had big issues when Ubuntu switched to Pulseaudio  it does not handle this issue well and, for instance, now we are testing Karmic they switched the GDM greeter to something with a face-browser. Nice idea, but not with 120 users in LDAP, and especially not when you can’t easily configure it to not do this.

Jan Stedehouder Why don’t you stick with the LTS versions? That would save a few issues?

We are for the most part, but for instance Openoffice 3.x does bring substantial benefits  and back porting Firefox is also no fun even on the LTS, it does seem that Ubuntu sometimes forgetsthe ‘corporate’ or mass-deployment situation. We always have to recompile Openoffice to make sure it handles concurrent access correctly that is, when somebody else has a document open and you try to open it, you should get a notification on that, and be offered to open it read-only upstream openoffice does that correctly. But for some reason Ubuntu’s version presents you with a blank document or, depending on the version, with a rather cryptic error message.

Czajkowski Do/Did you also use other linux distros?

No, as a whole we’re very satisfied with Ubuntu as for software, we use pretty much standard Ubuntu. Some software that people really like:  Inkscape and Scribus. gthumb. It’s great for simple image manipulation, for which Gimp is complete overkill. VLC It consistently plays every multimedia format you throw at it. For calendaring, we use a nice server called Davical. It is a calendar server that works very well with the Lightning plugin for Thunderbird  it integrates with LDAP, so all our users are known.

Czajkowski What do you suggest should be done in Ubuntu to better match your needs?

The main thing is indeed to keep in mind the fact that Ubuntu is used in organisations with lots of users  so that tests are done to ensure that new sound-daemons also work when your home-directory is remotely mounted. And that maybe face-browser login screens are not smart with hundreds of users :-) The documentation is actually good. Although is a bit chaotic at time

Jan Stedehouder Am I correct to conclude that 10-15 desktop haven’t migrated yet?

The last Windows desktops are still used for the financial stuff  we are at this moment implementing OpenERP, but it will only go into production on January 1st, when the new fiscal year starts.  OpenERP is a client/server solution for business software. It can do bookkeeping, Human Resources, sales, CRM, you name it but it is NOT a simple solution. This is not it’s fault, it isa full-blown business suite and they are always complex we did investigate all solutions, including proprietary closed software. They cost at least 300.000 euro so we finally convinced management that it’s actually smarter to spend 100.000 on getting things translated/localized and GPL’ing that plus, some of the people writing OpenERP are from Luxembourg,and actually speak Dutch in addition to French. That makes communication a lot easier.

Czajkowski what piece of advice/trick have you best learned from this ?

Best trick: be careful about what hardware you buy. One example: we got brand new fancy colour copier-machines. Turned out they had network ports, and were fully Postscript compatible. All Linux users could print to them about 3 minutes after they were plugged in. The windows users had to wait for driver installs, and even then had problems…. Also, Ubuntu got so much better in energy preservation. We uselow-power machines (Fujitsu Q-series). They look basically like a Mac Mini. Completely silent and very small vey fall asleep during lunch break, and wake up within 5 seconds very impressive.

I’d like to thank Paul Roeland and Jan Stedehouder for this interview it was great to learn so much from them, and also get some feedback to show others.  It’s a bit long but there wasn’t anything I could really cut out !

An interview from a NGO Association Manager’s Perspective

November 11, 2009

So last May at UDS, the discussion of NGOs and use of OSS came up and I wanted to learn more. Did they use oss,?if so what did they use, their issues and how they have over come them? What benefits they see from using oss, and how others can follow suit? I’ve emailed a few NGOs and will be interviewing them and letting folks know how they are getting on. So the first one is from An Association Manager’s Perspective.

Q: What is the mission of your organisation?

How to start? we act as staff for several NGOs. I work for a for-profit company that does government relations and association management. We’re able to offer our services for less cost than their having a dedicated staff And a much wider range of services than a small staff could provide.  Our mission statement is here

Our main clients are: Maine Nurse Practitioner Association, Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals, and Maine County Commissioners Association. Each is at a different level of maturity and activity . The most interesting is probably the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals, having newly formed in the last few months

Q: What software do you use?

Primarily Quickbooks, MS Access, Thunderbird, Firefox, MS Word, MS Excel, OpenOffice

Q: How do you use OS or Ubuntu for your NGO ?

I’ve been using Ubuntu as my primary desktop for years. I also am in the process of moving our storage server over, plus maintain a small server at a Xen-based ISP . I keep a couple Windows instances running on another server using VirtualBox, though I want to move to KVM soon for that.

Q: What do you suggest should be done in Ubuntu to better match your needs?

There is a LOT that needs to be improved that would let me get rid of proprietary software. I mean, before I could get rid of it. The two most important applications here are Quickbooks and MS Access. Quickbooks is the most popular software in US for small business accounting.

Q: So ubuntu would need to be more compatible? or does it work at all ?

MS Access will work under Wine for the most part. Some very small weird glitches though — main problem is that the online help doesn’t work. Ubuntu/Debian now has good tools to get at MS Access data, I think the package is called mdbtools.  But it has nothing like MS Access itself in its repositories. There is Kexi — but without printed reports what good is it? There is ooBase too. Not very understandable at all. Doesn’t do what Access can. If they had gone with SqLite we would have had so many more options.

Q: How do you find the documentation? We will be working on these on Ubuntu Global jam day.

For the most part the wiki’s are adequate. My major gripe is that they are hard to search, and sometimes you find obsolete pages. They need a cleanup very much. Many of the topics that have received good attention are excellent, and the format is very readable.

I’ve found the online help in the distro itself to be very nice. But so many applications (perhaps they’re not in “main) just don’t have help installed along with the application. It’s a separate install or non-existent.

I do want you to know I am a fan! It’s just nice to be able to feedback these problems that’s kept me from full adoption!

Q: What is the biggest difficulty you encountered with Ubuntu? Would you say some of the help has not been easy? or overall you’ve found it relatively ok ?

It’s disorganized. But the community very much makes up for it — both on IRC and the forums. That is the primary reason for my choosing Ubuntu over all other distros.

The biggest difficulty is understanding the changes between versions. There’s a big lag between a new release and the documentation in the past. I haven’t upgraded recently though, so I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Q: What do you think is the best trick you learned along the way?

Best trick? pdftk, command line tool to bust apart pdfs, recombine them, add an overlay or background. It’s like my secret weapon here!

Q: What would you suggest to our readers that are interested in an initiative like yours?

My suggestion for your readers adopting Ubuntu is to get a separate computer to migrate to; don’t bother with dual-booting. Try the different flavors of Gnome

(default Ubuntu), Kubuntu, and Xubuntu. Once you’ve played with it, network it to your Windows computer and move your workload slowly over.

Q: Any other feedback or comments?

The Term NGO – In the US, the them “NGO” doesn’t get used much, if at all. I had to look it up when I saw dholbach’s blog post. You’ll get better response from USians if youuse the term “non-profit organization” (or organisation I mean)

Now my big topic: accounting software.  Quickbooks is the most-used accounting software in the US. It only runs on Windows, and not in Wine. It is the ultimate in vendor lock-in.

The export features won’t export everything that Quickbooks holds. The best you can do is custom-design reports with all the fields checked, and export them into Excel. But it won’t export all the relationships between items.  I’m not sure that Ubuntu/Canonical would be up to that challenge, though it’s a major roadblock to adoption in the US by businesses and NGO’s.

Q: How can interested readers help your organisation?

Well, we’re not looking for help — nonprofits are driven by membership. To get Ubuntu into nonprofits, you need to give them the tools to give the members accountability. Cut down on theclerical work by giving the staff good publishing tools, using their member databases and accounting software as leverage.

So it’s good to know we’re helping people out there, but there are still areas we need to help them in.  I’ll hopefully have a few more interviews done in the next week and will update the wiki when I get them all done.  But we’ve all the information on the group here, and you can find us on #ubuntu-ngo.